The USA-Mexico divide

By Paul Kennedy

What lessons can we draw from another year of MLS participation in the Concacaf Champions League?

The good news is that the Mexican home-field advantage is shrinking. Even if the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders didn't get the wins they needed to advance, they played their opponents evenly. The closest thing to a no-contest of this year's four MLS-Liga MX series was Santos' 3-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the second leg of their quarterfinal series.

The days of MLS teams going down to Mexico, hitting a wall after 50-60 minutes and then getting blown out are over. MLS's accommodation in its schedule certainly is a big factor. The weekend off between the first and second legs allowed the MLS teams to play more key players with fresher legs than they would have otherwise been able to.

Tigres certainly learned a lesson when it tried to send a "B" team to Seattle to preserve a 1-0 lead over the Sounders. The days of Mexican clubs fielding less-than-full-strength teams -- at least in the knockout stage -- are over.

But to assume that MLS clubs are on the verge of catching up with their Mexican clubs would be wrong. There's still a talent gap and experience gap.

One could not help to be impressed with how the Sounders -- winners of one game (against Tigres) in seven outings heading into Tuesday's game at the Estadio Corona -- made it a contest against Santos and how they close they were to pulling out an improbable victory.

But one couldn't help be pained by how sloppy some of the play was from the Sounders. This is supposed to be the elite of MLS, but some of the touches and some of the passes were shockingly poor. It's the kind of play one sees week in and week out in MLS and blends into the choppiness that is MLS, but it's a killer on the international stage.

One likes to think of the Galaxy as the best of the best of MLS, a team with the right mixture of youth and experience, but a 10-minute brain freeze late in the first leg cost it a decent chance of knocking off the two-time defending champion, Monterrey. The Galaxy has carried a 1-0 lead into the last 10 minutes of countless MLS matches in recent years, but rarely does it come up against a team that can actually punish it like Monterrey did.

In the wake of the exits by the Galaxy and Sounders, there's been a lot of talk about the money gap between MLS and Mexican teams.

To a certain extent, that is true. The money gap means that Mexican clubs can pay for better foreigners. The South Americans they import are on the whole a rank or two better than those MLS clubs import. The money gap means that Mexicans can afford to spend more on player development and more to retain their best young players.

But to think MLS clubs can buy their way to the top of Concacaf would be wrong. Mexico simply produces better players and has been doing so for a long time.

The most encouraging performance in the USA-Mexico confrontations of the last six weeks did not take place in the CCL and it wasn't the 0-0 tie in World Cup qualifying at Azteca. (How many points out of 30 should you expect to get if you played 10 times and were outshot 19-1 each time?).

The most encouraging performance was Tab Ramos' U-20s not only taking Mexico's highly rated U-20s to overtime in the Concacaf U-20 final in Puebla but taking the game to the Mexicans with panache.

One bright spot in this year's CCL run was how well teenagers like Jose Villarreal and Jack McBean (five goals between them for the Galaxy) and DeAndre Yedlin (a revelation for the Sounders) all fared.

The problem is, this year's U-20 class of which Villarreal, McBean and Yedlin are all a part is just one age group -- and many of them, let's not forget, play south of the border.

Mexico has been cranking out players with scary consistency each year since it won the U-17 World Cup in 2005. So many U.S. age groups have underperformed in the same period that the national team has been forced to deal with what in effect amounts to a wasted generation by importing American-Germans en masse.

One will start feeling much better about the narrowing of the USA-Mexico divide only when another crop of teenagers are out there holding their own for MLS teams against their Mexican opponents.

13 comments about "The USA-Mexico divide".
  1. James Froehlich, April 11, 2013 at 8:45 p.m.

    Mr. Kennedy: Congratulations on one of the most insightful articles on this die in a long time. (Naturally I am in total agreement!!!). I also hope that the U-20's is not a one-time event. In light of the success of that team, I would love to hear from Tab on how this team was assembled. For example, how were these players identified? By whom? We're they just passed on "en mass" by the younger NT teams or did Tab and his staff do something different? Whatever was done needs to be replicated !!ty

  2. James Froehlich, April 11, 2013 at 8:48 p.m.

    Mr. Kennedy: Congratulations on one of the most insightful articles on this site in a long time. (Naturally I am in total agreement!!!). I also hope that the U-20's is not a one-time event. In light of the success of that team, I would love to hear from Tab on how this team was assembled. For example, how were these players identified? By whom? Were they just passed on "en mass" by the younger NT teams or did Tab and his staff do something different? Whatever was done needs to be replicated !!

  3. feliks fuksman, April 12, 2013 at 9:51 a.m.


  4. Brent Crossland, April 12, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.

    Good column! This goes hand-in-hand with Jerome de Bontin's comment on the overall quality of play in the MLS ( that Sports Illustrated & Soccer America reported last month. I realize that MLS has to be concerned with annual revenues but REAL success will come when the US national teams and the US professional league are truly competitive.

  5. Luis Arreola, April 12, 2013 at 10:27 a.m.

    James, exactly. To assume that we got "lucky" with that generation of U20's would be dead wrong. This is the type of team USA should at the very least be producing at all age levels. We should expect no less. From experience I can tell you that USSF is missing out on a lot of talent only because they are not part of an Academy. We are too big of a country to identify all the talent?? Next excuse. We are also the richest, most resourceful and best infrastructure. Mexico is not small and has the time to scout our big country and are quite successful in doing so. We must do a better job in keeping our talent here and put personal agendas aside.

  6. Luis Arreola, April 12, 2013 at 10:29 a.m.

    Brent, I agree that this is the best MLS teams have played vs MX teams. Galaxy and SOunders both played these top Mexico teams without fear and showed a promising playing style. That is courageous and that's what will make more people fans of MLS soccer. I hope the other MLS teams pay attention.

  7. carl king, April 12, 2013 at 8:19 p.m.

    I played professional (football) soccer in the Mexican 1st and 2nd divisions back in the midseventies and was the only northamerican I ever met while performing. I was told by the Mexican players that we would never be able to compete against them...Well things are finally changing after 40 years finally. Go USA.

  8. carl king, April 12, 2013 at 8:28 p.m.

    Ps. To this day I have not been given any recognition by our country for have ever participated in the pioneering of Northamericans who have been a pro in Mexico. For all I know I may have been the 1st.

  9. Joe Linzner, April 13, 2013 at 11:47 a.m.

    there is absolutely no reason as to why we cannot produce players the equal to any country other than the mom and pop coaching we give our youngsters right at the beginning. The very start teaches them nothing other than participation with no thought at all in teaching. While the pewees certainly should never be taught they should be however be shown how. The problem is that they are not shown anything because the coaches cannot show them because they themselves are not trained. Secondarily there is that silly perception that book-learning and film watching makes you a pro as evidenced by the expertise shown on forum sits all over the web. The game should be played freely with encouragement to let them enjoy themselves at an early age but with instruction on the basics while they are still malleable. Additionally there seems to be a resistance to learning from the experiences and wisdom of those who have gone before as well as a nationalistic and mistaken opinion that we as Americans are the best and any "foreigner" is a snob and therefore unworthy of any sort of constructive contribution. I too played semi-pro in the 60s and 70s when no professional domestic league was in existence so Semipro was the highest form of soccer with travel all over the country for the US Cup and other championships and goodwill tours etc. Sure most were ethnic teams (mine were German/Austrian/Hungarian/erstwhile Yugoslavian) but levels that rivaled current MLS styles of play. In any case until the game is played in the streets and College teams and the few academies cease being the main sources for player recruitment the change will happen very slowly. Personally I have been involved with organized soccer since the early 50s and as player, player-coach, referee, administrator etc and the resistance from people not ever having played the game is plain unbelievable. They always seem to know the game better than those in it for a lifetime. Sad, at least for me.

  10. Joe Linzner, April 13, 2013 at 11:48 a.m.

    PS. A very insightful article Mr. Kennedy!

  11. tom brown, April 13, 2013 at 3:49 p.m.

    It proves without MLS referees gifting the Galaxatives free goals, They are as crappy as any other MLS team. Garber & Anschutz are a cancer on american soccer.

  12. beautiful game, April 15, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.

    IMHO, unfortunately the divide is not decreasing; the Mexican squads are technically better and their team-soccer IQ2 is two levels ahead of MLS counterparts. The reason we tend to struggle starts at the U10/12 levels when players should be able to develop their individual technical skills without outside interference during a contest...the 'screaming sideline culture' inhibits the players from making things happen.Ideas on the pitch are useless unless they are spontaneous and something positive happens.

  13. carl king, April 20, 2013 at 1:52 p.m.

    This is Carl King and believe me it was a tough battle to prove myself while playing in Mexico. This Orange County man says, Thank you Soccer America for the recognition.

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